Premier League Clubs Managed: Aston Villa (1998-2002), Derby County (2002)
In 2015, it looked like John Gregory’s managerial career would be cut short when health reasons forced him to step down from his position at Crawley Town. Happily, Gregory has made a full recovery and is back in management over in India, currently as manager of Chennaiyin.
Recently, 20 years have passed since his appointment as Aston Villa manager where he took them to a title challenge tilt in his first full season and an FA Cup final appearance before an ill-fated spell at one of his playing clubs in Derby County that ended with Premier League relegation in 2002.
Playing in his teens
Gregory made his professional debut as a player at the age of just 18 in 1972. His first club was Northampton Town, scoring eight times in 187 league appearances before earning his big chance with Aston Villa in 1977.
It was a big step-up for John from his time with the Cobblers but he handled the pressure very well, even if his spell with the Villans was restricted to just two seasons. Gregory became the only player to play in every outfield position, wearing every number from 2 to 11 over his two seasons with the club, which remains a record.
After two years on the seaside with Brighton & Hove Albion, Gregory moved to Queens Park Rangers in 1981, enjoying the most successful period of his playing career at Loftus Road. In his first full season in west London, he was part of the team that reached the FA Cup final but experienced the agony of losing that final to Tottenham Hotspur. It was a pain that John would also experience as a manager a full 18 years later.
He helped QPR qualify for the UEFA Cup in 1984 but after Terry Venables left to accept the position as Barcelona manager, their form dipped and Gregory elected to move to Derby County in 1985.
Derby had been champions of England twice in the 1970s but by 1985, had dropped into the Third Division. With Gregory’s guile and experience, the Rams returned into the limelight with back-to-back promotions. After helping them survive their first campaign back in the top-flight, he announced his retirement as a player in 1988, although he did briefly come out of retirement two years later for very brief spells with Plymouth Argyle and Bolton Wanderers.
Cutting his apprenticeship
It would be six years between the end of Gregory’s playing career and his first steps into permanent management. His apprenticeship as a coach was during Brian Little’s days as manager with Leicester City and Aston Villa. He joined Little’s team in 1991 and followed him to Villa Park three years later.
In September 1996, he got the opportunity to go his own way with Wycombe Wanderers. At the time, it was one of the toughest jobs to make your mark. Wycombe were bottom of Division Two but he stabilised them and took them to a solid mid-table finish.
He had turned Wycombe into a play-off challenger in Division Two when Little resigned as Aston Villa manager in February 1998 after a 2-1 loss to Wimbledon left them floundering in 15th place in the table. Although big names were linked to the post, including Dutchman Ruud Gullit, Gregory was given the opportunity to return to Villa Park to revive their fortunes.
He revealed recently: “Villa had a group of players that should not be, under any circumstances, be worried about the threat of relegation.”
A wonderful honeymoon
His first match was a home game with Liverpool FC. Villa had lost five of their previous seven matches and Gregory had inherited a squad that he knew greatly from his days of being on Little’s coaching staff. The only exception was Stan Collymore and their relationship would be destructive.
It started well. Collymore put in an unstoppable performance against the club that had sold him the previous summer, scoring twice in Villa’s 2-1 victory. It was the high point of a very tempestuous relationship.
Collymore was involved in a highly-publicised bust-up with his girlfriend Ulrika Jonsson in the summer of 1998 and was never the same player after that. He struggled with depression and stress and it was something the manager struggled to help him with. He eventually loaned him out to Fulham and would release him in 2000 to join Leicester City.
Insults have been traded over the years but Gregory accepts mistakes were made on his behalf. He said: “It pains me to admit that I failed miserably in showing any kind of compassion to his long drawn out periods of depression. I still cannot understand how someone so young, fit, handsome and wealthy can suffer from such an illness.”
Aside from Collymore, the rest of the playing squad looked revitalised under his coaching. Villa rallied to seventh place at the end of the 1997-1998 campaign and qualified for the UEFA Cup. Despite selling Dwight Yorke to Manchester United, the momentum continued for the rest of the 1998 calendar year.
Aston Villa stayed unbeaten until mid-November and were top of the table on Christmas Day, losing just three times in the first half of the season. Going into 1999, Gregory’s team looked like a serious title challenger alongside Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. It had been a wonderful honeymoon period but it wasn’t to last.
Second suffering at Wembley
The Villans form crumbled after an FA Cup exit in January 1999 to Fulham. They folded in the title race and didn’t even qualify for Europe, finishing sixth in the final 1998-1999 standings.
A run to the FA Cup final in 2000 was the highlight of John’s next two seasons at the helm, guiding them to the final-ever final before Wembley would be demolished and redeveloped. They met Chelsea but the occasion seemed to get to the better of the players on the day. Roberto Di Matteo’s scrappy second half winner saw Chelsea claim the cup and produced a second final suffering for Gregory after his pain as a player with Queens Park Rangers.
In 2001-2002, the club had a brief taste of top spot in the table again, hitting the summit at the end of October after a 3-2 success at home to Bolton Wanderers. However, only three wins in 13 games followed which dropped them to seventh and two-goal leads were blown in the Premier League away to Arsenal and in the FA Cup at home to Manchester United.
In late January 2002, Gregory walked away from Aston Villa and was immediately linked with the vacancy at his former playing club, Derby County.
A Derby disaster
His first game as Derby manager came less than 10 days after exiting Aston Villa and Lee Morris scored the only goal in a 1-0 success over Tottenham Hotspur.
An away victory at already doomed Leicester City followed and only a controversial disallowed goal stopped them beating Manchester United at Pride Park. Unfortunately, seven defeats from the Rams last eight fixtures saw their six-year stay in England’s top-flight come to an end.
Gregory stayed on but couldn’t buy any players due to financial restrictions and Derby struggled back in Division One. He was sacked in March 2003 for alleged misconduct and took the club to court for unfair dismissal.
The protracted legal action meant he was out of the game for three years but he was successful in his case, winning £1 million in compensation. Needless to say, his Derby spell was a disaster.
Since then, John has been globetrotting with spells as a manager in Kazakhstan and Israel along with stints at Queens Park Rangers and Crawley Town.
With Crawley struggling in the League One relegation zone in December 2014, Gregory stepped down with the club revealing he needed open heart surgery in January 2015. After a long period of recuperation, he made a full recovery and is currently in India, adding to his managerial CV.
Passive was not a word to use about John Gregory. He had a good reputation for working with difficult characters and getting the best out of them. He was good also with soundbites for the media. When Yorke left Villa for Manchester United in August 1998, he jokingly said in a media conference: “Dwight came into my office a couple of weeks ago and stated he wanted to play for Manchester United and he didn’t want to play for Aston Villa. If I’d had a gun at the time, I think I would have shot him!”
One thing he does know after his health scare is he knows the true meaning of life and it being more important than management.